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Four reasons it’ll be hard to offer Maduro a golden parachute (and one reason to try anyway)

A Venezuelan opposition supporter holds a sign with the image of human skeleton, Bolivar bills attached to it and a legend reading “going hungry” as he waits to listen to self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaidó on Jan. 25. (Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images)

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is in trouble. Street protests against his leadership are growing. Opposition parliamentary leader Juan Guaidó claims he is Venezuela’s interim president — and has been recognized as such by the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and a host of other Latin American countries. However, many top Venezuelan military officers continue to support Maduro, raising the possibility of large-scale violence.

President Trump has insisted that all options are on the table to remove Maduro, including economic sanctions and military force. But an unnamed administration official recently hinted that the United States might help Maduro achieve an “exit solution,” presumably exile, if he agrees to leave power peacefully, and Guaido has indicated that he would offer amnesty.

But as other authors of this piece — Andrew Bennett, Ariya Hagh and Zacchary Ritter — find in our ongoing research, an exile with immunity for Maduro — essentially a “golden parachute” — may be difficult to achieve. Further, citizens may feel cheated if Maduro skirts justice and accountability. Yet coaxing Maduro out of office would certainly be less costly than a military intervention.

So is a golden parachute possible? How would it work?

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1. The credible commitment problem

For a leader facing trouble at home, exile can be attractive. Compared with a domestic retirement, in which a leader has to worry about whether to rely on promises of amnesty, exile has historically offered a credible promise of immunity.

Recently, however, there has been a global “justice cascade” of human rights prosecutions that seek to hold leaders accountable wherever they are. Leaders such as Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Chad’s Hissène Habré received international assurances of immunity if they accepted exile, only to be called into court later. Exile may no longer be seen as a safe exit guarantee.

As one of us, Daniel Krcmaric, has shown, the new international prosecutions of leaders are reshaping exile patterns. He finds that previously, leaders who had committed human rights abuses went into exile at about the same rate as those who did not. But since the late 1990s, when the International Criminal Court (ICC) was created and former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet was arrested, culpable leaders have been six times less likely to go into exile than leaders not responsible for mass abuses.

Undermining the exile option for culpable leaders, Krcmaric argues, creates a “justice dilemma.” These leaders have a hard time finding safe havens — and so have incentives to fight to the bitter end, as did Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi. On the other hand, the prosecution threat may dissuade leaders from human rights violations in the first place. In other words, when dealing with problematic leaders, there’s a trade-off between ending conflicts and deterring future abuses.

How does this apply to Maduro? He may be reluctant to go into exile because the ICC opened a “preliminary investigation” in February 2018 into reports that his regime used excessive force against demonstrators. However, Maduro has not yet been found responsible for the kind of large-scale killing of civilians that the ICC usually indicts. He may prefer to accept foreign retirement before the violence escalates so much that the ICC might issue arrest warrants. But the longer he stays in office — and the more abuses his forces commit — the harder it will be to offer a credible golden parachute.

2. Who might accept Maduro in exile?

Krcmaric and political scientist Abel Escribà-Folch have found that many leaders choose exile in neighboring or allied countries. But Maduro has alienated many of his neighbors, and his main foreign supporters — China, Cuba, Russia and Turkey — may have reasons to refuse him. Russia, for example, has invested billions of dollars in Maduro and may prefer that he stay and fight rather than cede power. Still, the United States and its allies might convince Cuba or another country to accept Maduro.

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3. The ratcheting effect

Once immunity is offered, it can be hard to convince an embattled leader that the offer will expire unless immediately accepted. In their working paper, Bennett, Hagh and Ritter argue that leaders are likely to pocket the offer and stall for time while they try to wear down the opposition. Panama’s Manuel Antonio Noriega, for example, prolonged his term in power through two U.S. golden parachute offers, until negotiations finally failed and the United States intervened by force.

The United States can use economic sanctions, however, to convince Maduro that time is not on his side.

4. Coordination challenges

Many parties have to coordinate to successfully offer exile: The government making the offer has to coordinate internally, as does that government and the dictator, the dictator and the opposition, and factions within the dictator’s in-group. All of that offers many opportunities for miscommunication and failure.

For instance, the offering government may be divided on whether to include amnesty, leading to mixed signals, as happened with Noriega. The opposition party might support a deal privately but oppose it publicly, relaxing its overthrow efforts and hoping the foreign government will take over. Finally, incumbents may fear an internal coup and have to bargain to get colleagues amnesty as well or preempt hard-liners’ efforts to overthrow a prospective amnesty deal. Opponents often make secret negotiations public, with their own spin, to try to derail the deal.

In other words, any golden parachute for Maduro will have to answer several questions: Who might leave with him, and with what degree of immunity? Could Maduro and others access their foreign bank accounts? By what date would he have to step down?

In short, achieving Maduro’s peaceful exit, while preferable to military intervention, will require deft diplomacy to align the interests of many actors.

Andrew Bennett @IRgetsreal is a professor of government at Georgetown University. His research focuses on military interventions, alliance behavior, civil conflicts and case study methods.

Ariya Hagh is a PhD candidate in the department of government at Georgetown University. His research focuses on autocratic durability, nuclear weapons and quantitative methods.

Daniel Krcmaric is an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University. He is finishing a book called “The Justice Dilemma: Leaders, Exile, and Violence in an Era of Accountability” (to be published with Cornell University Press).

Zacc Ritter is a consulting analyst at Gallup. His research focuses on unarmed insurrections, leadership security and global public opinion of U.S. and Chinese leadership.